The Juvenilization of American Christianity

One of the best books to come out recently is Thomas Bergler’s The Juvenilization of American Christianity. Bergler shows that much of what is ineffective in the Christian church today has its roots in the advent of youth programs during the World War 2 era. According to Bergler, entertainment was used to attract youth to church programs, and when those youth grew up, they expected the entertainment to keep rolling. And that’s why we now have so much focus in so many churches on programs that are spiritual sugar cookies.

The results of this emphasis, as something that takes the place of nourishing spiritual food like apologetics, are not hard to see. Some years ago a friend of mine told me a tragic story of how a nephew of his declared his apostasy from Christianity. That’s bad enough but there’s more to it.

This nephew was actually the latest of several children in this family to do this.

The first one to do so eventually committed suicide after several months of trying to reconcile themselves to their new view of the world.

One of the others is now a strident, vehement who does her very best to offend Christians.

And this family, by the way, attends a Southern Baptist church.

Obviously this is anecdotal evidence. But a story like this doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. It’s clear from this and many other stories like it that we have failed when it comes to discipleship (especially youth discipleship) in our churches. Our youth programs are often entertainment sessions that don’t prepare students for the real world of challenges to their faith. (In that, they tend to imitate the adult programs, though, as Bergler explains.) Many youth pastors (and many adult pastors, yes) are themselves ignorant of nature of their faith, yet they wouldn’t for a moment surrender their pulpits to a competent scholar or apologist for even one Sunday – or even do much to encourage a class being taught by them.

A youth pastor at my former church is a model for this sort of thing. When he first arrived and I met with him, his first words were, “I’m scared of you.” Eventually I convinced him to let me do an occasional teaching to the youth, which I hoped would grow into something more. I did seven such sessions, of only a few minutes each. That was the end of the semester, and I looked forward to more next semester.

For the next semester, though, that youth pastor started getting evasive. He vaguely said they were trying “something different,” though they had no idea what it was and they were making plans, so he’d get back to me. He never did. I rang his bell (figuratively) every 2 weeks or so to see what was going on and got the same evasive answer until the very end – when suddenly, 2 weeks after the last edition of that same evasive answer, he told me that the plans had been made now and there was no room for any more sessions like the ones I did.

What the youth pastor ended up doing sort of speaks for itself in terms of his focus on what Bergler would call “juvenile” programs. The most stunning example was his use of church funds to purchase a used automobile – a rather nice model – which he offered as a giveaway prize to the youth, on a night when they were supposed to invite all their unsaved friends to come too. Come to church, win a car.

I wish I were making that up, but I’m not. Bergler’s book is an excellent clarion call and well worth a read.

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3 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Chris Schorah

    Chris Schorah - November 14, 2013, 5:18 am

    It may well be that Christian youth ministries have been trivialised with a focus on entertainment and that this process has gone too far.
    But in the UK a superficial approach to almost everything has become the order of the day, all day, for most people. We’re saturated with it. Because of this many are not able to sustain any depth of engagement for either secular or spiritual topics, nor are they interested in doing so. To offer such is just ‘pissing into the wind’ as the more erudite amongst us say!
    And so it would be a mistake to pretend that we can start to build a ministry that would reach a wide audience, young or otherwise, with a scholarly approach to the faith, be that apologetic or theological. They need baby milk, as Paul would say. So I consider that we should begin with an experiential approach with our young people, one that will be both creative and entertaining, whilst retaining integrity and truth.
    The time to move them on to more solid food will be when they have some spiritual foundations and understand something of the Kingdom of God and how it contrasts with the dominions of mankind.

  2. Profile photo of J. P. Holding

    J. P. Holding - November 14, 2013, 8:08 am

    Starting with milk is fine. Juvenlized Christianity keeps it going until a person’s geriatric years.

  3. Profile photo of J. P. Holding

    J. P. Holding - November 14, 2013, 8:09 am

    Starting with milk is fine. Juvenilized Christianity keeps it going until a person’s geriatric years.

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